[LETTER] Feel racial discomfort rather than pushing it away

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The SPA Upper School History Department would like to express gratitude for the work done by Intercultural Club (IC) students and IC leadership, Evelyn Lillemoe, Gabriella Thompson, Dr. Hodges, and Dr. Taylor. They did the courageous work of setting up the annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) Assembly as a learning experience. Many students and adults at SPA are trying their best to engage in these conversations, and members of the history department believe that this effort needs to be taken on by all. So many students and adults have demonstrated excellence in their diversity, equity, and inclusion work. The History Department wants this critical labor to be the norm for our entire community.

Race is at the center of our history, our politics, our geography, and how and where we learn. It walks with us and talks with us even as some of us run away plugging our ears. One St. Paul freeway is a meandering parkway, the other a speedway. Why? Racism. A paralyzing sense of guilt should not be the response to learning this fact. Rather, we must all develop the skill of sitting and listening to communities of color–communities that have been marginalized and disenfranchised throughout history–who share lived experiences and speak truth to power. When IC honored and celebrated MLK Day, a hard-fought American celebration, mere weeks after another historic racial insurrection, the least people could have done was to stop running, sit, and listen.

King provided insights in his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail regarding the origins of some potential discomfort. A “white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom” is as big an impediment to freedom as the Proud Boy or Oath Keeper. King asserted, “But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word ‘tension.’ I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.” This quotation emphasizes the message of listening through discomfort as a predicate for growth, which is consistent with Courageous Conversations About Race protocols.

— Examining racism in the United States creates challenging conversations. As the Upper School history teachers at SPA, we believe that these conversations are essential, and at their best courageous.

January 2021 once again demonstrated how race defines the American experience. A coordinated attack by white supremacist terrorists brought the Stars and Bars into the halls of Congress in a manner that Robert E. Lee could never accomplish. Indeed, antisemitic insurrectionists in “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts sought to overturn a free and fair election by storming the Capitol in a manner no 1930s Silver Shirt would have thought possible. Why were these mostly white people fighting so hard on January 6th? The answer is as simple and complicated as our nation’s racial history. The day before, Georgia, among the deepest of Southern states, had elected a Black man and a Jewish man as their senators, shifting the balance of power in the Capitol and blowing a stiff wind of change in the face of an old order.

Discomfort arises when it becomes apparent that some people have certain advantages based on skin color or where they reside. This is a natural human emotion. The History Department asks that we feel this discomfort rather than pushing it away. Discussing inequity makes some people uncomfortable because people have benefitted from inequities, and that is an unnerving fact. Because of this, discomfort is inevitable in the discussion of equity issues, but it is not the same as being oppressed or unsafe. George Floyd was not safe on that May evening in South Minneapolis. Talking honestly about how that officer’s knee ended up on his neck is the only way to achieve historical understanding. Face-to-face, heartfelt, difficult conversation, rather than name-calling from behind the barrier of a glowing screen, can plant the seeds of change. We have heard that some contend that Tish Jones and Michael McDowell, who spoke with the SPA community at the MLK assembly, incited violence. We unequivocally reject that statement. Discussion about violence is not incitement. An analysis of Dr. King’s methods grounded in history and fact is not a threat. When Dr. King wrote, “We see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depth of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood,” he challenged us to seek understanding and brotherhood that could change one mind and heart, and maybe even the world.

Historical study says as much about the present day as the past. Examining racism in the United States creates challenging conversations. As the Upper School history teachers at SPA, we believe that these conversations are essential, and at their best courageous. These are historic times, amid a global pandemic that continues to rage inflamed by the kindling of structural racism, and an awakening by white people to the horrors of systemic racism owing to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. White acquaintances being asked what took them so long to see the world as it is, which is the least that white people need to do. Being situated as global citizens, Americans, and Minnesotans makes more sense with the help of historical context. Celebrating the past comes more easily than confronting the past. The United States and our state can be proud of many things and have many shortcomings for which to account.